Richard Broome, Managing Director at LSBUD, the UK’s leading online safe digging resource1, talks to us about safe digging within the gas sector, looks at the importance of performing an underground asset search, and explores the ramifications that come from striking any pipe or cable.
2022 represented a significant milestone for LSBUD, and the wider health and safety community, when Northern Gas Networks joined its collaborative, central portal. This means the company now has 100 percent of the UK’s major gas distribution networks registered as Members, actively sharing their network information with the LSBUD Users. So, every time someone makes a search enquiry, they can be safe in the knowledge that they are checking all of the major gas networks in Great Britain.
With more than 110 asset owners, across the oil, gas, electricity, water and broadband sectors, already represented on the LSBUD system, the safe digging community is stronger than ever. Indeed, as well as a full complement of gas companies, the portal boasts a 92 percent coverage of electricity distribution networks and 99 percent of fuel/oil pipeline operators. Over 1 million kilometres of pipes and cables across the UK are protected, and search enquiries from Users are over 3.5 million for the first time.
What this means is that the data is there, we just need more of it.
Why is data sharing important?
Every year, millions of excavation projects take place across the UK. These range from Government-funded large-scale infrastructure projects to private homeowners putting in a fence or shed in their gardens. Both are equally important to prevent damage as both pose a risk to the underground network and most importantly to the lives of those working in and around them.
Searching before digging is not a new activity, it is something that has been building momentum, and has become best practice for the majority.
However, it is the remaining people that are the concern. The latest figures from our annual Digging up Britain 20222 report show that 84 percent of people are searching for underground assets before they dig. This means roughly 650,000 people are still putting spades and digger buckets in the ground with no prior knowledge of what is beneath them. That is deeply concerning.
“searching before digging has become best practice for the majority”
By sharing data, asset owners can better protect their pipes and cables, improving project planning and pre-excavation awareness. By joining a central system, asset owners benefit from the ‘safety of the herd’ effect.
Perhaps the easiest way to highlight best practice is to pick a particular example.
SGN, which manages the gas distribution network across Scotland and the south of England, provides gas to over 5.9 million people through its 74,000-kilometre gas pipeline network. SGN uses LSBUD’s automated plan response software option which means that it is now able to respond to over 60,000 requests per month. The figure represents more than 16 times the number of enquiries that the team was previously receiving.
Signing up to a central, collaborative portal has significantly increased the efficiency of SGN’s plant protection service and it means they can share safety information and asset maps in minutes rather than days. Because so many more people are accessing the information, this means thousands more individuals and companies are working more safely around the network than before. It’s a win/win.
When and how do strikes happen?
Every year, when we publish the Digging up Britain report, we draw on data from the millions of searches conducted through the LSBUD portal from a January to December period. We also reference data provided by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), based on an information request for the number of underground electrical cable or gas pipeline strikes reported in that year. Plus, we collate information from the latest Utility Strike Avoidance Group’s (USAG) Damages Report to allow us to see other industry trends that will help protect the UK’s underground infrastructure and people working near it.
Bringing all the information together, we can look at the how, when, where and why surrounding utility strikes, spotting patterns and putting plans in place to stop them from happening again. The ‘how’ data from the latest report and digging activity is worth health and safety professionals noting. Indeed, there has been a shift in behaviour since the pandemic in terms of what forms of equipment are causing underground strikes.
The latest figures3 show ‘hand tools’ are the most common cause of damage to our pipes and cables. This is a change to previous years, which saw the combined categories of ‘excavator’ and ‘mini digger’, classed as mechanical excavation, leading the way.
“650,000 people are still putting spades in the ground with no prior knowledge of what is beneath”
Over the past 12 months, we have also seen strike incidents involving ‘saws’ and ‘jackhammers’ become more prevalent. What this suggests is that pipes and cables being hit must have been close to the surface and that the workers are operating too close to them. Both of these things increase the likelihood of incidents taking place, and them being more severe when they do.
The ‘when’ data shows that the time of year ‘strikes’ happen most often changed over the pandemic period. However we believe this to be an anomaly, which is expected to realign when the next batch of data is available. This time around, September registered the most asset strikes, but historically it is July normally when we expect to see the highest frequency of incidents. This is often due to longer working hours, good weather and temporary workers covering for holidays. On-site managers and health and safety teams need to be aware of this data, allowing them to prepare teams, and educate them on the dangers than come from certain times of the year, meaning they can stay vigilant, and reduce asset strikes.
“‘hand tools’ are the most common cause of damage to our pipes and cables”
In terms of days of the week, we see that Wednesday is when the highest volumes of accidents are recorded. Interestingly, the number of incidents classed as ‘high’ in severity also has been seen to rise throughout the week. This may suggest week-long tiredness or a rush to finish jobs ahead of the weekend. Analysis also shows that most strikes happen during the middle of the working day. This could be when workers are rushing to start or complete a task before their lunch break. A problem encountered at the construction of the London Olympic Stadium where porridge was offered as an option to reduce a peak in accidents in the hour before lunch4.
All of these statistics in isolation are partially useful, however when looked at as a whole, you can get a clear picture of what sites across the UK look like, when the most likely time for accidents are, and understand how to prevent them. It makes much more sense for Managers and construction workers to be proactive rather than reactive. It might just save someone’s life.
“working in and around oil and gas pipelines is the most dangerous to life”
Accurate reporting is key
In order to make these predictions we need accurate data. This is something the digging industry has struggled with for some time, with both asset owners and those doing the digging less than forthcoming to report their damages. The reasons include:
- They simply don’t record the data well enough
- The in-house way of reporting it not in a format that can be easily shared
- They don’t see or understand the value in sharing
- They worry about criticism, both internal and external
This is despite the fact that all information helps to create a full and accurate picture of what is happening each year. All of which is crucial in forming a more rounded analysis.
With accurate data being so valuable, what needs to change to bring about purposeful change in the future?
Well, traditionally, the Government’s position is that industry should drive best practice. Perhaps the time has come for a higher power to start holding people to account, ensuring that accurate reporting happens consistently. This is an area where regulators or even a government department, such as the Geospatial Commission, could build on the efforts of USAG to change behaviour and make a real difference.
Working around any underground asset needs careful attention, the right tools and certainly the right information. Working in and around oil and gas pipelines though is the most dangerous to life, so extra care and attention needs to be paid. Thankfully, the level of education amongst those responsible for excavation work is increasing year on year, meaning unnecessary incidents can be avoided.
“every single strike is a critical source of information to help protect people and assets in the future”
Of course, more can be done. We need more people searching before digging, and more asset owners sharing their data. Indeed, we urge each asset owner to keep sharing their data so others can have the most complete picture possible, and to keep reporting incidents so we learn and improve in the future.
Every single strike is a critical source of information to help protect people and assets in the future.
If everyone follows the basic rules of ‘subscribe, share and search’, we will continue to see the safe digging community grow, staying safer in the process. To find out more about LSBUD, please visit www.lsbud.co.uk.